A Qatari fan reflects on the World Cup hosts’ loss to Ecuador in their opening match of the 2022 final – Copyright AFP/STRINGER File
Raphaëlle PELTIER, Stanislas TOUCHOT
Thousands of empty seats told the sad story of Qatar’s long-awaited World Cup debut ending in a bad case of stage fright on Sunday.
Long before the final whistle at the spectacular Bedouin tent-inspired Al Bayt Stadium, the host nation’s 67,372 fans had begun to head for the exits.
The exodus began shortly after Ecuadorian striker Enner Valencia headed his second goal shortly after the half hour against the World Cup hosts.
As the second half wore on, swaths of empty seats could be seen throughout the arena as a night that began with joyous celebrations and heady optimism ended with a groan.
The sad ending contrasted with the mood in the hours before kick-off at the Al Khor stadium, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Qatari capital Doha.
Thousands of people poured into the huge Lusail railway station where the metro line built especially for this $36 billion tournament ends and spectators boarded a fleet of buses for the final leg of their journey.
Security forces appeared tense, aware that the eyes of the world are on this Gulf state, which many critics say should never have been awarded the World Cup.
Once the spectators reached the spectacular venue, camels and horses lined the path to the turnstiles.
Carlos Alvear, an Ecuadorian living in Ecuador, said: “It is very special to be here. It is the first World Cup in the Middle East, it is historic and Ecuador is here for the opening match.
“To be honest, it’s all a bit strange. It’s pretty quiet, even if there are more Ecuadorians than I thought there would be. But all these buildings look pretty empty.”
– ‘Trust our team’ –
For a Qatari fan who gave his name only as Abdallah, it was an exciting moment.
“We have been waiting for this moment for 12 years,” he said. “We have all the confidence for this festival…. We trust our team. We have ambition but we are realistic”.
He was confident of victory against the South Americans and predicted that his team would be runners-up in their group and progress to the next round, where England could wait.
“Today we will win, but we will be second behind the Netherlands. Then against England we will win,” she said with a smile.
Danny, a supporter from the English city of Norwich, said he planned to “jump on the bandwagon today” and support Qatar.
His friend, who gave his name only as Abdul, from Sheffield in the north of England, had brought a Qatari flag and was wearing a red top under his England shirt in case Qatar scored.
Danny stayed in the shipping container accommodation set up to visit fans for two weeks, saying “it’s not exactly what I expected”.
Away from the opening game, thousands of Mexican and Argentine fans packed the Corniche promenade in downtown Doha.
Leopold Fes, a 65-year-old Belgian, said he found it difficult to accept the last-minute decision to ban the sale of alcohol in stadiums of the strict Islamic State.
“I don’t think it’s like other World Cups,” he said. “No alcohol makes it weird. Soccer and alcohol go hand in hand for many people”.